A national alliance of gay groups and a United Nations (UN) official on Saturday called on President Aquino and his Cabinet to voluntarily take an HIV-AIDS test to help dispel the stigma associated with routine testing for this disease.
The call was made as about a thousand members of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups held their annual Metro Manila Pride March in Makati City on Saturday afternoon.
The Dangal (Pride) National Network, an alliance of 23 gay, bisexual and transgender groups, urged Mr. Aquino, Health Secretary Enrique Ona, and other Cabinet members to get tested to help reduce the stigma associated with the test.
Health advocates say the stigma and discrimination associated with the disease were among the factors behind the steep rise in HIV infections in the Philippines, one of only nine countries in the world where infections are increasing.
Many are ashamed to get themselves tested, Jonas Bagas, Dangal National Network president, said in a forum on HIV/AIDS.
Teresita Marie Bagasao, country representative of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, supported the appeal of Dangal, adding that leaders of other countries who have had themselves tested will serve as an example for their countrymen to follow.
“That’s an excellent call to action. Take the test at the highest level not so much because they are at risk but to dispel the stigma,” Bagasao said in the same forum.
“In many countries, what has happened is that the political leadership provides its support. One way for instance is a national day for testing. HIV-(testing) is still being stigmatized. We just want to normalize it,” she said.
“Taking the test is not something that people should be worried about. It’s normal if you want to know if you’re healthy. So, it’s more symbolic coming from leaders to do that,” she added.
Bagasao said action was needed because studies had shown that “only one-fourth” of Filipinos who have themselves tested return to find out the results.
“Three-fourths do not return and these are people who already had themselves tested. So, they really don’t know their status,” Bagasao said.
She also pointed out that only around 30 percent of “at risk” populations—men who have sex with men (MSM), men and women in prostitution, and drug addicts who use needles—have themselves tested.
“We won’t reach zero infection and zero deaths if we don’t address the stigma and discrimination,” Bagasao said.
Bagas said that, by having himself tested, the popular President would make a big impact in changing the mind set of members of the public who discriminate against people living with HIV/AIDS.
Dangal, however, said the tests should remain voluntary.
“Mandatory testing is not only illegal, but more importantly, it is ineffective and will only worsen stigma around HIV. If you force gays, bisexuals and transgender people to undergo HIV testing, you will only push the community underground and will expose them to graver forms of abuse,” Dangal warned.
Dangal said it was not gay sex but unprotected sex that was behind the increase in HIV infections among the MSM.
“The reason why the epidemic is spreading in the community is because unprotected sex remains prevalent. It is unprotected sex that we must address,” Dangal said.
“Blaming gay sex, or pushing for its elimination, is a futile exercise. Male-to-male sex is here for good. What we can eliminate is stigma and discrimination, which prevent us from accepting that male-to-male sexual or romantic relationships are part of our humanity,” Dangal added.